Shortly after completing their post-game media interviews, guard Wink Adams (23 points, two steals) and forward Joe Darger (13 points, two huge 3-pointers in crunch time) joined about 30 fans in the west tunnel at the Thomas & Mack Center and watched the overtime of BYU's game at New Mexico on a small overhead TV.
Only a few minutes earlier the crowd of 13,036 had erupted when it was announced that the Cougars were trailing the Lobos by double digits in the second half. A BYU loss combined with the Rebels' victory meant UNLV (21-6, 10-3) would move back into a tie for first place in the Mountain West Conference.
Alas, center Trent Plaisted, who was a pitiful 1-for-10 at the free throw line in BYU's 70-41 loss at the Thomas & Mack Center in January, calmly sank two free throws with 5.7 seconds remaining in overtime to give the Cougars (22-6, 11-2) a huge 70-69 comeback win at The Pit.
A 1½-game lead in second place over the Lobos (22-7, 9-5) would have to do for the Runnin' Rebels … for now anyway.
"It feels great to win the game and be in the race for first place," Adams said with his customary smile. "It was a big-time game … We put it all on the line."
"Yeah, very disappointed (New Mexico couldn't hold on)," forward Rene Rougeau said. "But at the same time, they (New Mexico) were on our back also. I guess it was a win-lose situation. As long as we win, that's all that matters to be honest with you. … I'm just happy we won tonight."
It was definitely a struggle at the start for the Rebels, who trailed at halftime, 33-31, against an athletic Aztecs' squad that was coming off an impressive 69-65 upset of BYU on Saturday night.
UNLV was a woeful 1-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half. Only some outstanding man-to-man defense that forced nine Aztec turnovers combined with some strong inside scoring by Adams and Rougeau kept it close.
Then Darger, who like Rougeau was still battling the flu, got hot outside just in time.
The game was tied, 35-35, early in the second half when Darger nailed a 3-pointer following a Corey Bailey steal. The basket was part of a 9-0 run by the Rebels who quickly built up an eight point lead, 44-36, with 13:18 remaining.
San Diego State (18-10, 8-6), led by former Cheyenne High star Lorrenzo Wade's 21 points, nine rebounds and five assists, clawed back to within four points, 51-47, on a slashing drive by Green Valley High product Billy White.
Darger then answered with his second 3-pointer of the night off a dish from Rougeau, who then promptly knifed in to steal White's inbounds pass for Richie Williams and quickly put in a nifty reverse layup to expand UNLV's lead to a more comfortable nine points, 56-47.
After Wade nailed a jumper to cut it to 56-49, Darger swished his third trey on the game from the right of the key to give UNLV its first double-digit lead of the night, 59-49, with 5:31 to go.
The deflated Aztecs never got any closer then seven points the rest of the way.
"I'm still a little sick but I'm getting over it," Darger said. "A lot of our guys have been under the weather a little bit and we have done a great job of fighting through it."
Darger, whose face was a bright red after the physical contest, said he knew he'd have to hit some perimeter shots in the second half to help his team win the game. He had scored just two points in the first 20 minutes.
"I knew going into the locker room at halftime that I would need to focus and knock down some shots for our team," he said. "Any time I can get my feet set and get an open look it most likely is going in. My teammates did a great job of finding me in transition, and I was able to knock some shots down."
Almost a Super Tuesday for the Rebels, 68-58
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